Stevia, botanical name Stevia rebaudiana, is a perennially growing shrub-like plant belonging to the sunflower family (Asteraceae). This plant is known by several names, such as sweet herb of Paraguay, Eupatorium rebaudianum, honey leaf, sweet leaf and sugar leaf. The leaves of this herb are a natural source of zero-calorie sweetener and are considered to be sweeter compared to natural sugar (sucrose). For several centuries, people in several regions of the world, including Central and South America and Japan, have been used the leaves in the form of a substitute for sugar as well as for treating numerous health problems. Earlier, people used to consume the fresh or dried up Stevia leaves directly, but, in due course of time, chemists were successful in isolating the glycosides known as rebaudioside and stevioside from the plant's leaves. The sweet flavor of stevia leaves is attributed to the presence of these two glycosides.

In addition, this herb also encloses a number of phytonutrients, vitamins, trace elements, minerals as well as volatile oils that adds to the nutritional as well as therapeutic properties of stevia. In 2008, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of the sweetener obtained from the leaves of stevia in various foods and beverages. Currently, the glycosides obtained from the herb are used in foods, beverages, herbal supplements and also in the form of syrups and sweetening powders. However, different from other sweeteners, you can use steviol glycosides in cooking as well as baking. It is important to use these glycosides in reasonable amounts as they are extremely sweet and only a little amount is sufficient.

While stevia became extremely popular in numerous markets during the early part of the 1990s, during the remaining part of the 20th century it got entangled in fierce battles across the globe. While a section of people confirmed that the extract from the herb was healthy and a natural substitute for sugar (sucrose), there were others who, depending on laboratory studies, expressed their health concerns regarding its use. The second group emphasized the need for more studies on the properties of the herb before it is approved for use by the masses.

During the 1930s, French chemists were successful in isolating stevioside, a natural compound present in the herb's leaves. Occasionally, this natural compound is marketed in its isolated and in an extremely purified form. On other occasions, a sweetener is prepared either by distilling or crushing the stevia leaves to produce a syrup or powder having an extremely sweet flavour.

It has been found that stevia has a further sweet flavour compared to other sugars/ sweeteners. In other words, just a little amount of stevia is sufficient to sweeten any dish or food. One benefit of consuming stevia is that our body processes this natural sweetener very sluggishly and this reduces the chances of developing high sugar considerably. Moreover, stevia does not contain any calorie whatsoever and this is the main reason why dieters prefer it. Findings of several studies hint that even people with diabetes may use this natural sweetener safely. Nevertheless, people who have diabetes should always check with their physician prior to incorporating new item into their diet to ensure that it does not change their blood sugar levels.

Health benefits of stevia

Findings of several researches have demonstrated that stevia may prove to be of use in treating several health conditions. It is believed that stevia possesses a number of therapeutic properties, including antioxidant, anti-microbial, anti-hypertensive, anti-glycemic and antiseptic. These attributes of stevia may possibly be useful in treating conditions like chronic fatigue, diabetes, hypertension, stomach upset, indigestion, obesity, cold and flu, heartburn, cavities in tooth, tooth decay, hair loss and dandruff, infections by bacteria, candidiasis, streptococcus, osteoporosis or brittle bones, several skin conditions, such as acne, eczema, blemishes, cuts, injuries, itchiness, rashes, dermatitis, seborrhoeic dermatitis as well as wrinkles. In addition, stevia is also likely to help in enhancing energy levels, invigorate mental activity, and reinforce the immune system, besides helping in treating withdrawal symptoms after quitting smoking and alcohol.

Latest medical studies hint that since stevia has low carbohydrate, sugar and calorie content, it may possibly be useful in managing weight. Initial findings of a research undertaken on stevia suggest that this herb may possibly get in the way of the functioning of hypothalamus and thereby assist in weight loss by means of holding back the feeling of hunger. The hypothalamus is a segment of our brain that regulates feelings like hunger, thirst and exhaustion together with its additional functions. Stevia possesses anti-glycemic actions and this may help in regulating the glucose levels in the bloodstream, thereby assisting in weight management. Stevia is known to act in the form of a tonic or stimulant to augment the levels of energy in individuals who are struggling to lose additional flab. It is advisable that you drink one cup (250 ml) of herbal tea prepared with stevia leaves or blend about 10 to 15 drops of stevia concentrate in a cup of tepid or cold water and drink it just 15 minutes prior to each meal you have.

It is understood that drinking stevia concentrate is useful for treating dry scalp, dandruff, and listless, dry and thin hair. In fact, people who have used stevia regularly have experienced their hair to be rejuvenated, stronger as well as become free from dandruff. You only need to blend three to four drops of stevia concentrate with your usual shampoo and rinse your hair as usual. In addition, you may use stevia tea in the form of a conditioner and wash it out five minutes after application following shampooing. Doing this will help your hair to retain it natural color and become stronger as well.

Several studies as well as investigations have demonstrated that stevia possesses the aptitude to maintain stable levels of blood sugar, enhance insulin resistance and may possibly even encourage production of insulin by supporting the health of the pancreas, inhibiting absorption of glucose by the bloodstream as well as preventing candidiasis - an infection caused by yeasts which thrive well in the presence of sugar. As mentioned earlier, stevia has a very low carbohydrate, sugar and calorie content and our body does not metabolize the glycosides enclosed by it. As they are excreted through urine, steviol glycosides do not build up inside the body.

According to the findings of a recent study, stevia may possibly also restrain the desire for sweet as well as oily foods. It has been found that drinking a tea prepared with pounded raw leaves of stevia, tea bags containing the dried herb or the herb's extracts twice or thrice every day may possibly help in curing hyperglycemia (abnormally high levels of glucose in the bloodstream). To prepare stevia tea, heat one cup (250 ml) of water and infuse one tea bag or one teaspoon of the herb's leaves in it for about five to seven minutes (just heat the water, never bring it to boil). You may drink this herbal tea hot as well as cold. Alternatively, you may add three to four drops of the herb's extract to one cup of tepid or cold water. In addition, you may use stevia in the form of a natural substitute for any synthetically prepared sweetener.

Stevia possesses anti-bacterial attributes and research reveals that this remedial property of the herb may be useful in treating tooth decay, cavities, and gingivitis as well as mouth sores. The anti-bacterial attribute of stevia may also prove to be helpful in curb the growth as well as proliferation of contagious microbes in our teeth and gums; restrain plaque formation and also help in supporting our oral health in general. People who have already regularly used stevia in the form of a mouthwash have confirmed that they experienced noticeable reduction in gingivitis as well as other types of oral infections. In fact, you will benefit if you just brush your teeth with pastes containing stevia and gargle with a mouthwash prepared from the herb. You can prepare stevia mouthwash yourself by adding three to four drops of the herbal extract to half a cup (125 ml) of tepid water or by infusing the leaves of the herb or tea bags containing stevia in half cup of water to prepare a tea. Gargle with this mouthwash thrice or four times every day, particularly one during the morning and again at night. You may also blend two drops of stevia extract with your usual toothpaste for better oral health.

In South American countries like Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, people have been making use of tea prepared from stevia leaves to alleviate heartburn, upset stomach and indigestion, in addition to augmenting the functioning of the gastrointestinal system. Drinking a tea prepared with stevia leaves following every meal will help you to digest your ingested foods better as well as alleviate stomach ache and heartburn.

Some long-term researches that were conducted over one to two years reveal that stevia may also help to lower high blood pressure. For instance, your blood pressure levels will remain stable just by drinking one cup of stevia tea two times every day.

A study undertaken on chicken demonstrated that when you incorporate powdered stevia leaf into chicken feed it results in a significant increase in metabolism of calcium in the chickens and reduced the breakage of their egg shells by 75 per cent! An application submitted for patent on potential treatment of osteoporosis using stevia hints that this herb may possibly facilitate the body to absorb more calcium, which in turn may result in better bone density. The patent application suggests preparing an herbal remedy using stevia and alfalfa by infusing half teaspoon of both herbs in water for about five to seven minutes. This herbal tea should be consumed twice or thrice every day. If you want, you may also add powdered form of vitamin D to this tea or take vitamin D supplements for better results.

Stevia is also considered to be an exceptional remedy for skin complaints. This herb possesses anti-bacterial, antioxidant and antiseptic properties, which may be useful in treating several skin conditions, including acne outbreaks, dermatitis, eczema, skin blemishes, rashes, itchiness, scarring, wrinkles and sore and roughened lips. Applying a little amount of stevia concentrate directly on the affected skin may possibly support the healing process. If you wish to remove the wrinkles, apply a paste prepared by crushing leaves of stevia or the herb's liquid concentrate evenly throughout the face and leave for about 15 to 20 minutes allowing it to dry up. Subsequently, rinse your face with cold water and dry the face gently using a soft towel. Once you have pat dried your face, apply some drops of extra virgin coconut oil on your face and allow it to remain throughout the night. This will benefit you immensely, as extra virgin coconut oil possesses antioxidant actions.

What are the side effects of stevia?

Consumption of stevia is not known to have any side effects, provided it is taken in moderate amounts. On the basis of intensive studies and scientific reports from across the world, the United Nation's World Health Organization (WHO) as well as the United States' Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had both endorsed that the using steviol glycosides was safe. In addition, these two organizations had also established an acceptable daily intake of steviol glycosides - taking 4 mg of the stevia extracts for every kg of an individual's body weight. Nevertheless, it is advisable that people taking any medicines for hypertension or diabetes should always use steviol glycosides under the supervision of a healthcare professional, because these glycosides have anti-hypertensive and anti-glycemic actions. Pregnant women and nursing mothers should also check with their physician prior to using stevia for therapeutic reasons.

While it may seem that stevia is a magic herb, findings of scientific studies may possibly suggest on the contrary. A section of scientists are worried that stevia may possibly be a mutagen, denoting that its use may result in cancer. In addition, researchers have found that this herb is related to malfunctioning of the reproductive organs. While a number of studies which reveal these negative aspects of using stevia have been undertaken improperly, there is no doubt that further thorough examinations of the compound is necessary to determine its true value. People advocating the use of stevia allege that the studies showing negative aspects of using the herb may possibly be a segment of a bigger effort by the sugar companies to keep all sugar substitutes away from the market. Substantiating their view, the proponents say that although stevia is extensively used in several countries in South America as well as Asia, no perceptible adverse effects of the herb has been reported from these parts of the world. Considering the arguments put forward by both sides, it is imperative that further controlled studies are undertaken to ascertain the real attributes of stevia.